Will SARS-CoV-2 During Pregnancy Impact Child's Neurodevelopment?

March 16, 2023

AUCD's network of Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Centers (IDDRCs) consists of 16 Centers. Fifteen Centers currently receive funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). IDDRCs contribute to the development and implementation of evidence-based practices by evaluating the effectiveness of biological, biochemical, and behavioral interventions; developing assistive technologies; and advancing prenatal diagnosis and newborn screening.

Scientists led by the Lieber Institute for Brain Development are studying how a mother’s SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy affects the biology of the placenta and the corresponding trajectory of the child’s brain development, including the risk for neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism. The project stems from a collaboration between the Lieber Institute for Brain Development on the Johns Hopkins medical campus in Baltimore, Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the Women’s Health Integrated Research Center at Inova Health System in Virginia.

The big picture

The group aims for a clearer picture of how a mother’s SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy affects neurodevelopment in utero, the effects of which may manifest early in a child’s life. The researchers hope to understand how the infection interacts with other factors relevant to brain development, including genomic risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, maternal stress and social determinants of health.

The team will study whether the relationship between maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection and offspring brain development is mediated by changes in the biology of the placenta and the activation of the mother’s immune system. They will also gauge any differences in the effects of SARS-CoV-2 between female and male children and in the offspring of vaccinated and unvaccinated mothers.

Why it matters

Preliminary data show that pregnant people with symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections are more likely to have a preterm delivery, abnormalities in the placenta and prenatal and perinatal complications such as preeclampsia and fetal growth restriction. All these complications have been found to increase a child’s risk of neurodevelopmental disorders later in life.

What we hope to discover

Sarah Mulkey, MD, prenatal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National, will lead the neurodevelopmental evaluations of the infants born to mothers with SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy to understand any long-term neurological effects in offspring. The researchers will evaluate the children’s neurodevelopment at both 24 and 36 months of age. This work builds upon Dr. Mulkey’s longitudinal neurodevelopmental evaluations in children exposed to Zika virus in utero.

“What we’ve learned is that even when babies don’t have Zika-virus-related birth defects, we still find differences in early child development compared to children who weren’t exposed to Zika virus,” said Dr. Mulkey. “With SARS-CoV-2, there is still so much we don’t know. But by better understanding the long-term impact of COVID exposure during pregnancy, we can ultimately find ways to prevent adverse outcomes.”

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